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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part II

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 68

In the Post-Iliad, or that portion of the Trojan war which lies between the Iliad and Odyssey, Ulysses will become the chief hero. After the death of Achilles, there will be a contest for the latter's arms between him and Ajax; Ulysses wins. That is, Brain not Brawn is to control henceforth. Under the lead of Intelligence, which is that of Ulysses, Troy falls.

The Odyssey, then, deals with the return of Ulysses from the Trojan War, and lasts ten years, as the account runs. But the poet is not writing a history, not even a biography, in the ordinary sense; he does not follow step by step the hero's wanderings, or state the events in chronological order; we shall see how the poem turns back upon itself and begins only some forty days before its close. Still the Odyssey will give not merely the entire return from Troy, but will suggest the whole cycle of its hero's development.

The first half of the cycle, the going to Troy and the stay there, lasted ten years, though some accounts have made it longer. The Iliad, though its action is compressed to a few days, treats generally of the first half of the cycle and hence it is the grand presupposition of the Odyssey, which takes it for granted everywhere. The Iliad, however, is a unity and has its own center of action, which is the wrath of Achilles and his reconciliation also; it is in itself a complete cycle of individual experience in the Trojan War.

We now begin to get an outline of the Unity of Homer. In the first place the Iliad is a unity from the stand-point of its hero Achilles, who has a completely rounded period of his life portrayed therein, which portrayal, however, gives also a vivid picture of the Trojan War up to date. As an individual experience it is a whole, and this is what makes it a poem and gives to it special unity. But it is only a fragment of the Trojan cycle—a half or less than a half; it leaves important problems unsolved: Troy is not taken, Achilles is still alive, the new order under the new hero Ulysses has not yet set in, and chiefly there is no return to Greece, which is even more difficult than the taking of Troy. Hence the field of the second poem, the Odyssey, which is also an individual experience—has to be so in order to be a poem—embraces the rest of the Trojan cycle after the Iliad.

Thus we may well hold to these unities in Homer: the unity of the Iliad, the unity of the Odyssey, and the unity of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both together make one grand cycle of human history and of human consciousness; they portray a complete world in its deed and in its thought, as well as in manners and institutions.

Here is, then, the highest point of view from which to look at these poems: they are really one in two parts, written by one epoch, by one consciousness, and probably by one man. The Iliad as a poem is a complete cycle of individual experience, but as an epoch is only half a cycle. In like manner the Odyssey as a poem is a complete cycle of individual experience, but as an epoch is the second half of the cycle of which the Iliad is essentially the first. Both together constitute the one great movement usually called the Trojan War.

Much time has been spent in discussing the question whether the Trojan War was historical or mythical. We make bold to affirm that it was both—both historical and mythical. It began long before the dawn of history and it exists to this day. For the Trojan War is the conflict between Orient and Occident, starting in the twilight of time, and not yet concluded by any means. The conflict between Orient and Occident runs through all Greek Mythology, is indeed just the deepest, tone-giving element thereof. It also runs through all Greek history from the Persian War to the conquests of Alexander, and lurks still in the present struggle between Greek and Turk. The true Mythus gives in an image or event the events of all time; it is an ideal symbol which is realized in history.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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